November 2003
Church Budgets in a Bear Market

Authentic Tough Talk

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

Who would disagree that authentic, honest talk about money is one of the very toughest things a vestry has to do? It is particularly hard in tough economic times, when it is most necessary.

Every time we present a budget to the community, we are asking for something. How then, to communicate in such a way that people believe what we are saying? Whatever the hard choices we have made — to maintain one program at the expense of another, to defer badly needed repairs, to lay off staff, or even to run a deficit — have been made after much debate and prayer and in good faith. Will the community support us?

Believing it ourselves
The first thing we need to be sure of is that we have actually done all of those hard things we think we have done. In other words, to be believed we must believe it ourselves.

A few years back our vestry went through a discernment process exploring who we were and who we wanted to be. This followed a period in the early ‘90’s when recession, clergy turnover, interim ministry, less than crystal clear accounting, deficits and staff layoffs led to real pain and distrust in the parish. To help heal, a vestry pledge had been made to balance the books every year come what may. There would be no surprises.That promise was kept. After six or seven years of stability, we sensed that trust had been restored. Now it was time to dream a little. Things felt good in the parish. We were ready for the next level.

Under the leadership of three very capable senior wardens over two years, dream we did: What would the church look like if we glorify God in a way commensurate with our underlying resources? Moreover, what if we went beyond the basics and were able to raise whatever funds we needed? We took our time; there was real depth and enthusiasm. After costing our dreams, we came up with an annual budget roughly $300,000 at a minimum and $500,000 at a maximum over where we were (approximately $900,000 total).

By and by stewardship season arrived. The senior warden asked all vestry members to significantly increase their own pledges in order to lead the parish in this fresh beginning. Our vestry goal was an increase of 33% over a couple of years.

As I remember it, pledges from the vestry went up a paltry 2%.

I was junior warden at the time, shortly to be senior warden. I was terrified. I knew that this vestry really wanted the things it had dreamed. I knew that times were relatively good. I knew that the parish was not on the warpath.

The rector and I started asking each other questions. What was it we didn’t know about
ourselves? Our tradition is to find our treasurer, stewardship, and finance committee chairs from among the bankers, traders and investment managers in our community. They had, over the years, done a great job of ensuring that we stayed within our limits. But, we asked ourselves, what do our budget discussions feel like? Not particularly good. We know what is said, but what is the relational tone? Maybe the non-financial people running programs were intimidated?

Not trusting the budget
We developed a hunch that there wasn’t a collective understanding of the budget we already had. Not trusting the budget, the vestry was not equipped to field questions from the parish about it.

Rarely were there any serious financial questions at vestry meetings and when there were, the answers were often defensive. Successive treasurers wanted to hustle through the routine; other members did not want to look stupid. And of course, things were in good shape. We hadn’t run a deficit in years. We were stuck without being aware that we were stuck.

We pushed and pried in private with some vestry members. What were their real attitudes toward “the numbers?” We learned that there was a widespread assumption that there was a lot of slush in the budget, only that it was going to some program other than their own.

We scheduled a series of non-mandatory meetings over the summer to completely and thoroughly shine light on the budget. A lot of work went into these; no question was too small, and frankly, no question was too dumb. Since it put the responsibility and the
opportunity on each of us personally, every vestry member came to every meeting. We
had a lot of fun. When we were finished, we had an absolutely solid foundational budget, and we proved what we had been saying all along. There was no slack at all in the budget, only now we knew that for certain. Our treasurer was vindicated. But now he knew how to talk a community talk. He knew that people were with him step by step.

Maybe best of all, we eliminated a lot of tangential conversation that was really about money, but didn’t come right out and say so. And the vestry’s own pledges went up — from 2% to 36%!

Authenticity flows from knowledge and belief. It creates genuine movement and unsticks the stuck. We should always question our assumptions to be sure to learn what we don’t know. And like all true knowledge, we come by it personally, firsthand. Don’t we owe that to ourselves and to the communities we lead?

The former senior warden at St. Luke’s in Darien, Connecticut, Dick Kurth is principal of Richard Kurth Associates, a leadership development firm in New York City.

This article is part of the November 2003 Vestry Papers issue on Church Budgets in a Bear Market